Pasta has earned a bad rap, but in actuality, this Mediterranean diet mainstay deserves some fanfare: In 1 cup of cooked wheat-based pasta, you’ll get 200 calories from complex carbs, 7 grams of plant-based protein, and 3 grams of fiber — not to mention antioxidants, minerals, and B vitamins (like folic acid and niacin) that help your body metabolize energy, plus iron thanks to the enriched, milled flour.
American Style vs. Italian Style
In America, we're used to eating traditional pasta in a bowl as a main dish, often with sauce, cheese, and butter. Many restaurants here also double-up on the carbs, offering sliced bread to dip in butter or oil, or garlic knots galore. But in Mediterranean cultures, carbs (whether in the form of bread, pasta, or grains) are consumed as part of a meal that's loaded with vegetables and grilled seafood.
#1 Takeaway for Healthier Pasta
Change the ratio of veggies to pasta: Double up on the veggie serving you’d normally have, and cut the pasta by a half or third. You’ll keep the flavor, add extra fiber, and generally max out on nutritional quality, without ever noticing the difference.
The Healthiest Way to Add Pasta Toppings
Adding meat to traditional pastas can make for a more filling meal, but if you’re loading up on veggies and eating regular meals and snacks, you may not need to add protein. (Also, protein can come in the form of cheese if you’re going for a vegetarian option.)
To limit sodium, pick cheeses that are under 200 milligrams of sodium per slice. A little less of a stronger flavored cheese can go a long way: Try a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, Asiago, feta, goat, or even pepper jack.
Make it Mediterranean by adding more veggies, including frozen or canned versions, which are equally (if not more!) as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Some top veggies to load up on: broccoli, eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, onions, spinach, sweet potato, tomatoes, garlic, zucchini
The Healthiest Kinds of Pasta You Can Buy
Pulses are the dry, edible seed of veggies otherwise known as beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils. Since they’re plant-based and chock-full of protein and fiber, they’re some of the best veggies you can use to sub in for flour, and certainly one of the top nutritious pasta choices on the market.
Choose products with 100% lentils, chickpeas, beans, or peas as the first ingredient, but a word to the wise: You’ll need to start slow. A 2-ounce serving of chickpea pasta has up to 20 grams of protein and 20 grams of fiber, which means that your intestinal tract might not be ready for the fiber-palooza you’re about to deliver. First try mixing some into your traditional pasta recipes, buying the "protein" pastas made with legume and wheat flour, or simply slow down as you eat.
100% Whole Grain Pasta
If you’re aiming to load up on fiber (which, ahem, we all should be eating more of!), whole-grain pastas are another prime choice — especially if you add extra veggies. Since 100% whole-grain wheat flour packs up to 7 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein per 2-ounce dry serving, it's a filling accompaniment for tomatoes, squash, or whatever produce is in season.
TIP: Look for “100% whole grain" wheat or any other grain as the first and only ingredient.
Zoodles (a.k.a. spiralized zucchini noodles), as well as sweet potato, beet, and squash versions, provide everything you could want from spaghetti, without containing as many calories as legumes or grains. They pack fiber and a little bit of protein (anywhere from 1 to 5 grams of each nutrient, depending on type of veggie).
That said, because zoodles are so low in calories per serving, you’ll need some protein on the side to bulk up your meal. Try grilled shrimp, scallops, rotisserie chicken, or even some mozzarella and tomatoes.
The Bottom Line
The best way to make traditional wheat pasta a part of a healthy diet is to double up on vegetables and reduce the serving of noodles by a half or third. Pick a low-sodium sauce without any added sweeteners that uses vegetables as the first ingredient. If you're curious about the new stuff on the grocery store shelves, go with bean-based or whole-wheat versions. Pair low-cal zoodles and other vegetable "pastas" with more lean protein on the side.
a version of this blog originally ran on Good Housekeeping